5 Portraits of Women in White

The color white is often associated with peace, holiness, innocence and purity, and there's a long history of artists using the shade to align their subjects with these virtues.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, 'Portrait d'une femme noire', 1800, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris (detail). Photo public domain
Marie-Guillemine Benoist, 'Portrait d'une femme noire', 1800, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris (detail). Photo public domain

From wedding gowns to the summer wardrobe staple, white dresses have had an enduring place in the history of fashion. In art, too, the white dress has made a frequent appearance throughout the centuries. Here are 5 famous portraits of women in white:

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864-65

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl', 1864-65, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm, Tate Britain, London. Photo public domain
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 'Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl', 1864-65, oil on canvas, 76 x 51 cm, Tate Britain, London. Photo public domain

The American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who studied in Paris and led the life of a bohemian, always emphasized the composition of a painting. Accordingly, he named many of his works after the color that was primarily used in them, in this case the color white.

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl suggests that the painting from 1864-65 is not the only one in Whistler's oeuvre in which white was the focus. In 1862, he made Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, followed later in 1866 by Symphony in White, No. 3. The model for each of these three paintings was the Irish woman Joanna 'Jo' Hifferan (1843-1903), whom Whistler met in London in 1860 and took to Paris, where the two had not only a professional but also a romantic relationship, much to the displeasure of Whistler's family. 

Related: 5 Portraits of Women in Black

In Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, Jo can be seen standing by a fireplace, above which there is a mirror that shows her face slightly turned away from the viewer. In her right hand she holds a Japanese fan, on the ring finger of her left hand is the simple circlet of a wedding ring. It is on this, too, on which Jo's gaze rests. Presumably Whistler wanted to illustrate the close relationship between him and Jo in this way, even if he never presented her with such a ring.

However, the couple had various other relationships. When Whistler made a trip to Valparaiso in Chile in 1866, Jo visited Paris and sat as a model for Whistler's friend Gustave Courbet, allegedly also for his scandalous work L'Origine du monde. After Whistler's return, they separated amicably and stayed in contact.

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, Portrait d'une femme noire, 1800

Marie-Guillemine Benoist, 'Portrait d'une femme noire', 1800, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo public domain
Marie-Guillemine Benoist, 'Portrait d'une femme noire', 1800, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo public domain

While many 19th-century paintings depicted Black people in harmful Western stereotypes, either as 'barbarians' or 'noble savages', or reduced them to allegories of continents, this portrait shows a young Black woman who gazes out confidently at the viewer, garbed in a white dress. She sits gracefully on an armchair that is largely covered by a blue cloth, the gilded frame of which peeks out at one point. The turban and the half-bared breast might be taken as a cliché after all, but in fact, the dress corresponds to the depiction of Amazons, the mythical equestrian female warriors of antiquity. Wrapped headscarves, on the other hand, have a long tradition in West and South African cultures, and were considered status symbols or worn on special occasions. Their meaning changed in the Caribbean and the Americas, where in some regions slavery laws required enslaved African women to wear a headscarf as a sign of oppression. However, over time, especially after the abolition of slavery, they evolved into a fashion and cultural statement worn with pride, and have become more common again in more recent times.

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The portrait was painted by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), a French aristocrat who was trained as a painter by Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun and Jacques-Louis David. In 1793, she married Vincent Pierre, Comte de Benoist, with whom she fled to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe before the French Revolution. 

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In the course of the Revolution, slavery was abolished in the French colonies in 1794 (but reintroduced by Napoleon in 1802). Madeleine, the name of the young woman depicted, had lived as a slave in Guadeloupe before traveling to Paris with the Benoist couple around 1800, where Marie-Guillemine painted her.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, 1905

Gustav Klimt, 'Portrait of Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein', 1905, oil on canvas, 180 x 90 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Photo public domain
Gustav Klimt, 'Portrait of Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein', 1905, oil on canvas, 180 x 90 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Photo public domain

This painting fits in seamlessly with the series of portraits that Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) painted around 1900 of the women of the Viennese upper middle class, whose families were of great importance for the cultural and artistic development of the Austrian capital.

Margarethe Wittgenstein (1882-1958) came from the Jewish Wittgenstein family. Her father was the steel magnate Karl Wittgenstein, who also distinguished himself as a patron of the arts, especially when it came to the Vienna Secession, whose exhibition building, designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, he generously co-financed. Margaret's two younger brothers were the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Margaret's unconventional upbringing aroused her interest in a wide variety of areas, which included the psychoanalysis founded by Sigmund Freud, as well as mathematics, chemistry and literature. 

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In January 1905, Margarethe married the New York factory owner Jerome Stonborough and moved with him to Berlin. In that year, her father commissioned Klimt to make the present portrait, in which Margarethe is wearing a velvet dress she designed that was made in one of the textiles departments of the Wiener Werkstätte. The soft and flowing shapes of the dress contrast with the geometric shapes of the background. Although the painting is considered one of Klimt's best portraits today, Margarethe didn't like it at all and supposedly kept it in the attic. 

In 1923, Margarethe and Jerome's marriage fell apart and the couple went their separate ways. Margarethe returned to Vienna, where she had the Wittgenstein House built, reminiscent of the Bauhaus style, where, apart from her years in American exile (1940-47), she lived until her death in 1958.

Édouard Manet, Portrait Eva Gonzalès, 1869-70

Édouard Manet, 'Portrait of Eva Gonzalès', 1869-70, oil on canvas, 191 x 133 cm, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin. Photo public domain
Édouard Manet, 'Portrait of Eva Gonzalès', 1869-70, oil on canvas, 191 x 133 cm, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, Dublin. Photo public domain

When you think of an artistically active woman in the circle of Édouard Manet (1832-1883), the first person who comes to mind is Berthe Morisot, who was friends with Manet from the late 1860s and his muse, as well as his sister-in-law. However, there was another gifted young lady who played a role in Manet's life at the time: Eva Gonzalès (1847-1883). 

Eva Gonzalès came from the same social environment as Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet. Her father, who was Spanish, was a writer, and her Belgian mother was a musician, who, like Madame Morisot and Madame Manet, welcomed interesting personalities into her salon. Eva began her training at the age of 16 with the painter Charles Chaplin and in 1869 she already had her own studio where she painted still lifes and portraits of women. During stays on the Norman coast, she also experimented with landscapes.

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After Eva Gonzalès met Édouard Manet through the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, Berthe Morisot suggested that Manet could improve the young colleague's training. During his tutelage, Manet painted a portrait of Eva Gonzalès, which depicts the young painter sitting in front of an easel, daringly wearing a long white gown. In her left hand she holds a color palette and some brushes, with the brush in her right hand she makes some changes to a flower still life that has already been set in a magnificent gold-colored frame.

Eva Gonzalès also found her husband in Manet's circle of friends, the engraver Henri Guérard, whom she married in 1879. Only four years later, the gifted young woman's life came to an end. She died on May 5, 1883 from the consequences of childbirth. She only survived her admired teacher Édouard Manet by five days.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, 1932

Tamara de Lempicka, 'Portrait de Marjorie Ferry', 1932, oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm. Photo © Christie's
Tamara de Lempicka, 'Portrait de Marjorie Ferry', 1932, oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm. Photo © Christie's

In 1932, Tamara de Lempicka painted a portrait of Marjorie Ferry, the British star of Parisian cabaret. The silver-white of the background and dress is just offset by touches of red: Marjorie's nail polish and lipstick.

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In addition to the bed sheet and the red color, Marjorie wears a large cabochon ring on her hand. The ring was a gift from Marjorie's wealthy husband who was able to afford her a glamorous lifestyle. Of course, he had also commissioned the portrait of his beautiful wife from the most sought-after portrait painter of the period in Paris. The Warsaw-born artist owed her success not only to her talent and style, which practically embodied Art Deco, but also to her way of life. Always in a party mood, Lempicka frequented the circles of her wealthy clientele, where she made a name for herself with her appearance as an eccentric diva.

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In 1916, she married the lawyer Tadeusz Julian Łempicki, with whom she lived first in Saint Petersburg and then in Paris, where Tadeusz could not find work, so Tamara resumed her painting training. 

The Portrait of Marjorie Ferry was one of the last major commissioned works by the painter, who, like so many of her colleagues and clients, suffered from the stock market crash of 1929. She received financial security through her second husband, the Austro-Hungarian Raoul Baron Kuffner de Diószegh, with whom she emigrated to the USA at the beginning of the Second World War. However, she was never able to build on her artistic successes of the 'Roaring Twenties'.

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